A Meditation for Lent


Jewish rabbis have a useful word to describe the attitude of a believer to Sacred Scripture. The word is mashal, and it is used of a short, witty statement, often a proverb, such as:

A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who heeds admonition is prudent.[1]

The characteristic of a mashal is that it is a text that judges the reader, as opposed to the reader presuming to judge it. In other words, when we are confronted with God’s word, we shall profit from the encounter if we are docile. It is comparable to our reaction to great art. If I were to say, “Shakespeare couldn’t write worth a darn,” you would conclude that I was an ignoramus, not that the Shakespeare is in any way second rate. I mention this because there is a text in chapter twelve of Matthew’s Gospel that is mashal for me—it judges and it judges harshly: “The men of Nineveh will rise at the judgement with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” What sends shivers down my spine is the thought that Catholics of old will rise at the judgement and condemn us, for they repented and did penance during Lent, while we, who need it more than they did, do not. Consider, for instance, that in those days, theatres were closed during Lent, and there was no dancing or other public amusements. Fasting and abstinence were universal. Have you ever wondered why pancakes are traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday? It is because they were cooked in lard, and Catholics prepared them with the last bit of animal fat they would taste until Easter. There were also extra services in church. Even when I was a boy, we had what were called “devotions” on three evenings a week: Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. There would be special prayers, such as the stations of the cross or the rosary, a longish sermon and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The church was packed. Almsgiving, too, played its part, for the money not spent on oneself was regarded as belong to the need.

The fasting could be severe. In the early Church, e.g., there would often be only one meal a day, taken towards evening, and even it was to be lighter than usual, and vegetarian. Such fasting had several purposes. It reminded people that they could well do without many creature comforts that we tend to regard as indispensable. It was also designed to drive home an increased awareness of sin and its effects. There was a typically Catholic psychology at work here, what we might term “gaining conviction by imitation.” First, ask yourself when we find the very thought of food abhorrent. Two such situations come immediately to mind: the first is when someone is seriously ill. What lengths we go to in order to have him take even a minimal amount of nourishment! The other instance is in time of grief, as when someone you love has died. Your initial response to the news of this death would hardly be, “What’s for supper?” On the contrary neighbours and friends will bring food to try to tempt you to eat.

Both of these attitudes should be ours during Lent. We are all spiritually ill because of our sins, and so we should have the same disinclination to eat as someone who is physically ill. We don’t of course, hardened sinners that we are, but by imitating the external behaviour of someone who is fully aware of his condition, we may be able to incite within ourselves recognition of our spiritual malaise. Similarly, the grief that accompanies mourning can be our when we imitate the abstinence of genuine mourners. For just as they grieve at the death of someone much loved, so we too can mourn as we contemplate the death of Jesus on Calvary. Fasting imitates those external symptoms to excite within us the interior disposition. Thus, you can see why I sometimes wonder if our relaxed observance of Lent will not have dire consequences at the last Judgement. For which of us will be really fasting, even on the two remaining days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday? Further, will any one of us impose upon himself a ban on television, movies or the internet? Will there be more time devoted to prayer? Will we be more generous in serving others with our time and resources? Perhaps we shall, to some extent; I hope so.

But let me, after all this recrimination, offer some justification for our current practice; for times have changed. The Middle Ages was a time when society was largely rural, and Lent came at a time of the year when food supplies were dwindling. Willy, nilly, people ate less. It was also an inactive period, well before the time for heavy work on the land. Hence, the physical weakness that accompanies fasting was not a drawback, and the psychological frailty it produces was an incitement to prayer. Contrast that with our very different way of life. For us, there is no let-up in the demands that work and family impose. In fact, it seems that Lent comes at the busiest time of the year. The quiet and austere period that late winter months provided for our forbears is simply unavailable today. Lent, therefore, should nowadays be a summons, not to withdraw into a monastic solitude but rather to examine our actions and purify our motives. There is a sort of fasting from entertainment, e.g., that results from having little or no time for it. We should profit spiritually from that fact. Let us also fulfil our obligations to the letter, and do so patiently, without grumbling, for authentic almsgiving will be apparent in those who strive to make their activity genuinely serve others in the physical emotional, intellectual and, yes, spiritual need. We can pray more too, if we invoke the help of God from time to time as we respond to the demands of our work or to the needs of the people around us. The saints tell us that holiness can come to a busy person who cultivates the presence of God by lifting up his heart now and then in the course of the day.

Happy Lent!

[1] Proverbs 15.5.